A Loving Look Inside Vacuum Fluorescent Displays

Everyone knows we’re big fans of displays that differ from the plain old flat-panel LCDs that seem to adorn most devices these days. It’s a bit boring when the front panel of your widget is the same thing you stare at hour after hour while using your phone. Give us the chunky, blocky goodness of a vacuum fluorescent display (VFD) any day of the week for visual interest and retro appeal.

From the video below, it seems like [Posy] certainly is in the VFD fandom too, rolling out as he does example after example of unique and complicated displays, mostly from audio equipment that had its heyday in the 1990s. In some ways, the video is just a love letter to the VFD, and that’s just fine with us. But the teardowns do provide some insights into how VFDs work, as well as suggest ways to tweak the overall look of a VFD.

For example, consider the classy white VFDs that graced a lot of home audio gear back in the day. It turns out, the phosphors used in those displays weren’t white, but closer to the blue-green color that VFDs are often associated with. But put a pink filter between the display and the world, and suddenly those turquoise phosphors look white. [Posy] does a lot of fiddling with the stock filters to change the look of his VFDs, some to good effect, others less so.

As for the internals of VFDs, [Posy]’s look at a damaged display reveals a lot about how they work. With a loose scrap of conductor shorting one of the cathodes inside the tube, the damaged VFD isn’t much to look at, and is beyond reasonable repair, but it’s kind of cool to examine the spring mechanisms that take up slack as the cathodes heat up and expand.

Thanks to [Posy] for this heartfelt look into the VFDs of yesterday. If you need more about how VFDs work, we’ve covered that before, too.

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How To Restore A Musical Amiga

Despite the huge strides in computing power and functionality that have been achieved in the past few decades, there are still some things that older computers can do which are basically impossible on modern machines. This doesn’t just include the ability to use older hardware that’s now obsolete, either, although that is certainly a perk. In this two-part restoration of an Amiga 500, [Jeremy] shows us some of these features like the ability to directly modify the audio capabilities of this retro machine.

The restoration starts by fixing some damage and cleaning up the rest of the machine so it could be powered up for the first time in 30 years. Since it was in fairly good shape he then started on the fun part, which was working with this computer’s audio capabilities. It includes a number of amplifiers and filters in hardware that can be switched on or off, so he rebuilt these with new op-amps and added some new controls so that while he is using his MIDI software he can easily change how it sounds. He also restored the floppy disk drives and cleaned up the yellowing on the plastic parts to improve the overall appearance, as well as some other general improvements.

These old Amigas have a lot going for them, but since [Jeremy] is a musician he mostly focused on bringing back some of the musical functionality of his childhood computer, although he did build up a lot of extra features in this machine as well. These types of audio circuits are not something found in modern computers, though, so to get a similar sound without using original hardware you’ll need to build something like this NES audio processing unit programmed in Verilog.

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Pie Stop For Emergency DNS Needs

The war on Internet ads rages on, as the arms race between ad blockers and ad creators continues to escalate. To make a modern Internet experience even remotely palatable, plenty of people are turning to DNS-level filters to stop the ads from coming into the network at all. This solution isn’t without its collateral damage though, as the black lists available sometimes filter out something that should have made it to the user. For those emergencies, [Kristopher] created the Pie Stop, a physical button to enact a temporary passthrough on his Pi-Hole.

While [Kristopher] is capable of recognizing a problem and creating the appropriate white list for any of these incidents, others in his household do not find this task as straighforward. When he isn’t around to fix the problems, this emergency stop can be pressed by anyone to temporarily halt the DNS filtering and allow all traffic to pass through the network. It’s based on the ESP-01S, a smaller ESP8266 board with only two GPIO pins. When pressed, it sends a custom command to the Pi-Hole to disable the ad blocking. A battery inside the case allows it to be placed conveniently anywhere near anyone who might need it.

With this button deployed, network snafus can be effectively prevented even with the most aggressive of DNS-level ad blocking. If you haven’t thought about deploying one of these on your own network, they’re hard to live without once you see how powerful they are. Take a look at this one which also catches spam.

Ham Radio Hacking: Thinking Inside The Box

There are two ways to deal with improving ham radio receivers, or — for that matter — any sort of receiver. You can filter and modify the radio frequency including the radio’s intermediate frequency, or you can alter the audio frequency output. Historically, RF and IF techniques have been the most valued because rejecting unwanted noise and signals early allows the rest of the radio to focus on the actual signal of interest. However, audio filters are much easier to work with and until recently, DSPs that could handle RF frequencies were expensive and uncommon. However, [watersstanton] shows us how to make what could be the cheapest audio enhancer ever. It is little more than a modified cardboard box, and you can see and hear the result in the video below.

On the one hand, you shouldn’t expect miracles. On the other hand, you probably have box laying around and can try it in the next three minutes so why not give it a go? You can hear a bit of difference when using the box and not using the box.

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Abacus Synthesizer Really Adds Up

The abacus has been around since antiquity, and takes similar forms over the hundreds of cultures that have embraced it. It may be one of the first devices to be considered as having a “user interface” in the modern context — at least for simple arithmetic calculations. But using an abacus as the UI for a music synthesizer seems like something entirely new.

Part art concept project and part musical instrument, the “Abacusynth” by [Elias Jarzombek] is a way to bring a more visual and tactile experience to controlling a synth, as opposed to the usual knobs and switches. The control portion of the synth consists of four horizontal rods spanning two plywood uprights. Each rod corresponds to a voice of the polyphonic synth, and holds a lozenge-shaped spinner mounted on a low-friction bearing. Each spinner can be moved left and right on its rod, which controls the presence of that voice; spinning the slotted knob controls the modulation of the channel via photosensors in the uprights. Each rod has a knob on one side that activates an encoder to control each voice’s waveform and its harmonics.

In use, the synthesizer is a nice blend of electronic music and kinetic sculpture. The knobs seem to spin forever, so Abacusynth combines a little of the fidget spinner experience with the exploration of new sounds from the built-in speaker. The synth also has a MIDI interface, so it works and plays well with other instruments. The video below shows the hardware version of Abacusynth in action; there’s also a web-based emulation to try before you build.

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Quick Tip Improves Seven-Segment LED Visibility

We’re suckers for a nice seven-segment LED display around these parts, and judging by how often they seem to pop up in the projects that come our way, it seems the community is rather fond of them as well. But though they’re cheap, easy to work with, and give off that all important retro vibe, they certainly aren’t perfect. For one thing, their visibility can be pretty poor in some lighting conditions, especially if you’re trying to photograph them for documentation purposes.

The tint film can be cut to size once applied.

If this is a problem you’ve run into recently, [Hugatry] has a simple tip that might save you some aggravation. With a scrap piece of automotive window tint material, it’s easy to cut a custom filter that you can apply directly to the face of the display. As seen in the video, the improvement is quite dramatic. The digits were barely visible before, but with the added contrast provided by the tint, they stand bright and beautiful against the newly darkened background.

[Hugatry] used 5% tint film for this demonstration since it was what he already had on hand, but you might want to experiment with different values depending on the ambient light levels where you’re most likely to be reading the display. The stuff is certainly cheap enough to play around with — a quick check seems to show that for $10 USD you can get enough film to cover a few hundred displays. Which, depending on the project, isn’t nearly as overkill as you might think.

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An acousto-optic tunable filter and laser

Acousto-Optic Filter Uses Sound To Bend Light

We all know that light and sound are wave phenomena, but of very different kinds. Light is electromechanical in nature, while sound is mechanical. Light can travel through a vacuum, while sound needs some sort of medium to transmit it. So it would seem that it might be difficult to use sound to modify light, but with the right equipment, it’s actually pretty easy.

Easy, perhaps, if you’re used to slinging lasers around and terms like “acousto-optic tunable filter” fall trippingly from your tongue, as is the case for [Les Wright]. An AOTF is a device that takes a radio frequency input and applies it to a piezoelectric transducer that’s bonded to a crystal of tellurium oxide. The RF signal excites the transducer, which vibrates the TeO2 crystal and sets up a standing wave within it. The alternating bands of compressed and expanded material within the crystal act like a diffraction grating. Change the excitation frequency, and the filter’s frequency changes too.

To explore the way sound can bend light, [Les] picked up a commercial AOTF from the surplus market. Sadly, it didn’t come with the RF driver, but no matter — a few quick eBay purchases put the needed RF generator and power amplifier on his bench. The modules went into an enclosure to make the driver more of an instrument and less of a one-off, with a nice multi-turn pot and vernier knob for precise filter adjustment. It’s really kind of cool to watch the output beam change colors at the twist of a knob, and cooler still to realize how it all works.

We’ve been seeing a lot of [Les]’ optics projects lately, from homemade TEA lasers to blasting the Bayer filter off a digital camera, each as impressive as the last! Continue reading “Acousto-Optic Filter Uses Sound To Bend Light”